Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Lesson of Kony 2012 for Mission Outreach: Sometimes, "Doing Nothing" is Better

Oh, my dear, idealists are the cruelest monsters of them all.”
-Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

In her various books on American history, Sarah Vowell repeatedly reveals a complex relationship with idealism and the can-do spirit, which parallels her relationship with the United States in general. In The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes, she paints a dark picture of what happens when brave and noble souls give up their homes and comforts in order to be a light unto the world, bringing aid and salvation to those living in far-off lands. The Puritans, self-professed “city on a hill,” brutally massacred the Pequot Indians. The children of missionaries to Hawaii eventually took over the country and orchestrated its annexation against the will of most of its people. Yet despite the deep cynicism of her assessment that these and other idealists are among the most damaging forces on Earth, one can sense in her writing a fascination bordering on admiration for the sheer chutzpah of these people. The Puritans’ daring and idealism form an integral part of American culture; it is part of who Sarah Vowell is, I think, and it certainly is a part of who I am. My humanitarian sensibilities come from my belief that God wants me to be an agent in the transformation of the world. These are the same instincts that have motivated missionaries throughout the centuries. Despite the secular world’s criticism of missionary movements, the same spirit of going out and making things better forms the basis of most global humanitarian efforts. The combination of daring and idealism that feeds this spirit is wonderful, powerful, and terrifying.

I am again reminded about the profound unease surrounding the relationship between the desire to change the world and colonialism as I read about the Invisible Children “Kony 2012” campaign, initiated by American Jason Russell to bring Ugandan guerrilla leader indicted for war crimes to justice. Plenty of criticism has been leveled against this movement for misrepresenting and oversimplifying the situation in Uganda. I’m not interested in adding to this criticism or defending the movement. What interests me most is the passionate argument raised by those speaking out to defend Kony 2012, which says, What have you done for the world lately? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?

No. No, it isn’t.

The idea of doing nothing in the face of injustices goes against every fiber of my deeply American sense that I have power in the form of economic and racial privilege, and I must use it to help those who have no power. The irony is that by having this privilege, I am also less able to understand the situation of those without it. I may have the power to change things, but that doesn’t make me qualified to do so. And the fact is that no matter how good my intentions, using my power to interfere with the lives of others will often cause more harm than good.

The example of colonial conquest of Hawaii is a worst case. Another common result that arises from the efforts of Americans to help others can be simple inconvenience and annoyance. While I was working in Nicaragua, I had a colleague in Peru who commented on the short-term volunteers coming through the boarding school for at-risk boys where she worked. The volunteers had limited language and technical skill, and as a result the boys had the dorm walls repainted every other week.

The lesson in the criticism of the Kony 2012 video needs to be taken to heart in the churches that offer social outreach ministries. Justice is not a one-way enterprise. If the church is not being consciously transformed by those it purports to transform, its work is not just.

In a wonderfully insightful response to the Kony 2012 video, Rosebell Kagumire’s critique points to a different way of doing justice work: listening to the story, listening well, and telling it right. As she puts it, “if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless… you shouldn’t be telling my story.” In my 18-month volunteer stint in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (fueled undoubtedly by some of that same idealism that inspired Jason Russell, the Peruvian volunteers, and the missionaries), I discovered the power of story as an instrument of justice. Being open to hearing the experiences of those in another country, letting those stories change me, daring to be vulnerable and share my own stories with them: this ministry accomplished far more than any lesson plan I developed or class I taught. Even a year and a half of listening does not qualify me to try to fix the many problems of Nicaragua's economic and political situation. That's why it angers me to hear an American claim solidarity with the Sandinistas, while having no knowledge of how the political party has both helped and hurt its country in the 30 years since the civil war. The most effective thing I can do now is continue to tell the story as truly as I know it, and hope that my telling it will change others as it has changed me.

In American culture, listening does not count as doing. Taking the time to hear someone out is time that could be better spent fixing them. Speaking with others who have spent substantial time abroad, I find that so many of us have drastically reevaluated what we think “doing something” means. In our impatience to make things better in a way that makes sense to us, we fail to see the work that we actually need to do. If we do not take the time to get the story right, and recognize the power of the story and the honor of receiving it, how can we hope to play a positive role in the story’s next chapter?

Image courtesy of Bill Woodrow. Listening to History, 1995 Bronze By Bill Woodrow, originally posted to Flickr as Listening to History.

Cross-posted on www.stateofformation.org

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fomenting Repentance: A Vision of the 100%

Originally posted at http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/01/fomenting-repentance-a-vision-of-the-100-2/

Christianity has manifold resources for individuals who feel mired in sin who seek to repent and live a new life. As Kaari Aanestad pointed out in a wonderful article, this is not without problems, as it can keep individuals trapped in cycles of depression. But what about societies that are mired in sin, which as mass entities are unable to feel as individuals feel? And what about individuals within an unjust system who perpetuate it and benefit from the injustice, even though they did not create the system and by themselves are powerless to stop it? Is the language of sin and repentance effective for transforming societal sins? The works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggest to me that it is not effective to indict large groups of people for sins they may perpetuate, but did not engender.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr states that

"Individuals are never as immoral as the social situation in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation…An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so." (p. 248-49)

To support this assertion, he points to William Lloyd Garrison, whose fierce criticism of the evil of slaveowning merely “solidified the south in support of slavery.” (p. 248)

Martin Luther King, Jr, seemed to follow Niebuhr’s advice (with both men drawing also on the work of Gandhi). In “Give Us the Ballot,” he stresses that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man…We must respond to every [court] decision with… an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them.”

Rather than calling on white moderates to lament their role in a racist system, he prays for them to have the courage to be strong leaders. The distinction is perhaps subtle, because strong leadership is the ultimate goal of repentance. The difference is that King focused on rallying to the correct way rather than criticizing the incorrect way.

The priests in Nehemiah 8 also take this strategy in orchestrating mass repentance:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks…Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.”’

In Nehemiah, discovering the right way to live was not cause for contrition, but for celebration and action.

Fomenting transformation on a wide scale means calling people to their highest values, rather than excoriating their sins. Excoriating sins tends to alienate folk, and alienation does not create political will. Movements that build political will are not humble and contrite; they are strong because they are joyous. They are, in Heschel’s words, “spiritually audacious and morally grandiose.”

Religious leaders would do well to take the model of Niebuhr and King into consideration when participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The call of the 99% may be able to unite a vast array of folks, but it is predicated on calling the 1% to repent of their sins. As long as the 1% are made to be a sinful other, they can never have a place in the mission of the 99%. President Obama recognized this in his State of the Union address when he called on his fellow wealthy Americans to participate in a fairer economic system as one of the 1%. We need to imagine a vision of the 100%.

Niebuhr also recognized that those with privilege would not cede it unless forced to do so. To some extent, it is unrealistic to create a vision of social change in the hopes that it would appeal to the privileged. Nevertheless, the only way to approach a world of the 100%--in which common good is taken seriously by all, and giving to the poor is once again a shared virtue--is by having the imagination to conceive of it.

It is the duty of religion to provide such vision. The call of the 99% follows the Christian model of admonishing sinners to repent. We need to explode the limitations of that movement and provide a Nehemian vision, in which the community celebrates because together they have found a new way to live.


Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).
Martin Luther King, Jr, “Give Us the Ballot,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, NY: Warner Books, 2001), pp. 43-56.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Advent Advertisement

Hey there, weary Christian! Are you a retail employee disillusioned by the singleminded zeal of shoppers determined to spread the spirit of giving, come hell or high water? Are you a stressed out churchgoer searching for that perfect donation to foist upon your local nonprofit, because poor little Timmy’s Christmas will be ruined if you can’t personally deliver him the right teddy bear and see his face light up? Give that season of giving a rest! I present you with Advent: the Christian alternative to the Christmas season.

Dare to leave American civil religion’s one and only liturgical season off your calendar! After all, the cultural trappings of the Christmas season do not date back to the birth of Christ. In fact, many of them do not date past the fifties. If more authentic celebration is what you’re after, give the season of non-celebration a try!

Family get-togethers and office parties stressing you out? Advent has no holiday cheer required! So go ahead and respond to that party invitation by saying, “Sorry, I need to sit alone.” Feel liberated to act out that instinct to respond to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” by running away, shutting yourself in your room, and pondering the question’s deep existential ramifications. Just stay in there awhile. Don’t let incessant carolers break your Advent spirit!

Ever stare into the deep darkness of lengthening winter nights and just feel like staring some more, instead of declaring war on winter and fortifying your house with blue glowing icicles and a lit-up Santa Claus? Advent is the season for you! Let that darkness symbolize your pain and strife, then sit with it awhile. Ponder what needs illuminating. As the interim associate pastor at my home church put it, Advent is the moment you strike a match and wait to see if it lit. Revel in the fragility of that hope! It doesn’t have to be the most wonderful time of the year!

And if you like Advent, try Christmas, the week and a half set aside for celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior conveniently timed to coincide with the end of the stressful holiday season. Run through the streets with your children singing “O Holy Night” to your heart’s content while society rests from the holiday frenzy.

And later, in August, when the non-profits are really strapped for donations in civil religion’s off-season, then you can take up that spirit of giving and cut your local homeless shelter a hefty check.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Live Your Story

For months, I had been dreading attending the Mission to Mission reentry retreat. Leaving Nicaragua had been a long grieving process for a place, for a community, and for friends who changed me so thoroughly. My soul was slowly starting to catch up with me in the US. I was afraid going to the retreat would make me feel the loss anew. Over the course of the weekend, however, I became aware of how much I had grown since returning to the US, and how much Nicaragua had continued to grow inside me.
The retreat helped me recognize that I had been living in a precarious position between wanting to put distance on the intense emotional rawness of volunteer experience while wanting to dwell on that experience for fear of losing its effect on me. As the facilitator explained it, it sometimes feels like you have to introduce yourself as “Hi, my name is Kathryn I-was-in-Nicaragua,” as if it was your middle name. The goal of reentry, she explained, is getting to the point where you live the story of your volunteer experience, so you don’t feel like you have to tell it all the time. I had to find a balance between holding on and letting go, between embracing how I had been transformed while giving my grief permission to pass.
To this end, we spent time identifying the specific ways our international service had changed us, as well as the individuals who had participated in that change. I recognized the sacred gift of all those who had reached out to me in my loneliness, who had taught me to be patient and to trust God even when there seemed like there was no apparent reason to do so. At the end of this exercise, I realized that one of the greatest skills I had was the ability to do just what we were doing then. I had learned how to receive wisdom from people around me at unexpected moments, and in unexpected ways. I learned how to be open and attentive, to recognize gifts others are always offering that can make me a better person. Even now, when I attend my divinity school classes, I am much more able to gain insight from the comments of my fellow classmates than I ever was as an undergraduate.
By recognizing this and all of the other ways I grew during my time in Nicaragua, I now understand what it means to live my story. Every time I discern prophetic words in the mouths of my peers, whenever I go out of my normal routine to practice hospitality, when I surrender illusions of being able to control others or achieve optimal efficiency, then I am living the story of my international mission. The mission did not end when I returned home. The work continues, and the international segment of my mission lives on and adapts to new circumstances. That is why organization calls itself “Mission to Mission.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

If Only Thomas Aquinas had known Rogers & Hammerstein

I wrote this in response to Rebecca Levi's post Oh The Clergyperson and the Scientist Should Be Friends, which I think would have been more aptly titled "Science Takes the Fun out of Pantheism."

The scientists and clergy should be friends.
Oh, the scientists and clergy should be friends.
One reports to the AMA,
The other answers to Yahweh,
But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Professional folks should stick together,
Professional folks should all be pals.
Science makes clergy’s medications,
Pastors tend the researcher’ souls.

The scientists and clergy should be friends.
Oh, the scientists and clergy should be friends.
One preaches hearts be filled with love,
One dissects hearts with latex gloves
But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

2011 Campy Awards

I'm pleased to announce the winners of the 2011 Summer Campies in the following categories:

Best Accident Report goes to Anna,* age 5, for getting her laminated name card caught firmly between her teeth.

Honorable mention to Mike, age 8, for shoving a bean so far up his ear that our removing it was prohibited as a form of minor surgery.

James, age 6, takes home Best Behavior Report for slapping his friend upside the head because "he farted."

Perpetual Optimist Award granted to his friend, who was so excited to tell his mom about another friend he made at camp that he forgot to tell her he'd been slapped.

The Campy for Best Reason for a Tantrum goes to Betsy, age 7, for "That kid said I was as cute as a teddy bear and gave me a hug."

Winner of the award for Best Explanation of a Tantrum is Thomas, 7, for "I think I have The Hulk inside me."

"I Have No Sympathy for You" Campy goes to Oscar, age 10. During a game of Jeopardy, the kids were presented with the question "Name 3 languages spoken in Africa." Anya, whose parents immigrated from Africa, easily rattled off three indigenous languages, two of which I hadn't even heard of. Oscar rhetorted, "That's not fair...she's from Africa!"

Campy for Best Debut Original Song is taken home by Katie, 6, for her one-hit wonder "I Have a Thousand Kinds of Rats."

In the technical category, we have a Campy for Captain Planet, which provided the best check-in ever when you only have four kids in your group. Also a nod, to Parker, who knew where "Earth, fire, wind, water, heart...Go Planet!" comes from. Also the only one in the K-1 group who knew who Mr. Rogers was.

Finally, the I Wish I'd Known You Sooner Campy goes to Alex, age 10:

I met Alex on the very last day of camp. She is often mistaken for a boy (including at first, by me) because she prefers looser athletic clothing and wears her hair short. Part of me kicked myself for lapsing into normal gender stereotyping, but then I reminded myself that I'm always judging kids based on gender stereotypes and was bound to get it wrong one of these days. After we talked for a little while, she blurted out, "I hate it when girls stare at me in the locker room because they think I'm a boy...It makes me feel embarrassed and angry." I asked her what she wished they would do instead. She said, "I don't know. Talk to my friends or to a teacher and ask them. Or just be nice about it and say, 'Hey, it's cool that you wear your hair short like that, but it kind of makes me wonder if you're a girl or a boy, instead of asking 'ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?' " I told her I had friends who had female bodies but felt like they were actually boys on the inside, so they identified as boys, and they liked it best when people ask them if they use boy words like "he" or girl words like "she". Alex's face lit up. "That's how I feel!" She thought for a moment. "But I still like using 'she.'" "And that's totally fine," I replied. We talked for quite a while about gender stereotypes (not in exactly those words) and the difficulties of learning math.

All in all, an excellent field for the 2011 Campy Awards. Congratulations to all the winners. Keep rockin' the camp!

*Kids' names are pseudonymous.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Passing Through Vipassana

It was over a year ago that I first read about S.N. Goenka's secularized movement of Vipassana meditation and the 10-day introductory courses for the practice, offered at centers around the world. It was perhaps eight months ago that I decided I was interested in trying it, and last week that I finally took the course. The decision came after speaking with one of the directors of Cap Corps about how easy it is to get addicted to extreme emotions, because they're clear, free of ambiguity, and give one a sense of truly "living," whatever that means. Swinging from extreme emotion to extreme emotion, however, is also extremely stressful. The director had found that Vipassana helped her stay more in control, and I thought I could get in on that. After spending a week in silence at the Taize monastery in France, I had learned to embrace rather than fear 10 days of silence. I was a little worried about waking up at 4:00 in the morning, though it turns out it's easier to wake up at 4:00 to meditate than it is to wake up at 6:30 to go to work.

The idea behind Vipassana is this: people are driven miserable by constantly reacting to things with pleasure or aversion. We yearn for what we want yet don't have, and long to be rid of that which we have yet don't want. It may be a fleeting craving for ice cream or a burning desire to fall in love, a brief pang of hunger or chronic back pain. These reactions drive us, and drive us crazy.

This idea was not news to me particularly, and it's not news to most people seeking spiritual balance, via religion or otherwise. It has provoked such wisdom as the theology of abundance, which is the belief that God has given enough for everyone and we don't need to be constantly trying to compete with others for happiness and wealth.

What Vipassana contributes to the effort to avoid madness is a meditative practice. The theory goes that when I interpret an outside stimulation as good or bad, I'm not actually reacting directly to the stimulation. At a deeper level, my body reacts first, with tension or relaxation, pain or tingly chills. My brain then interprets my body's reaction with craving (Give me more of that) or aversion (Stop this). This interpretive process is what makes me miserable.

So during meditation, I just sit there. I may feel pain, or tingly, relaxed or tense. I observe my body's sensations with equanimity and remind myself that they'll go away. And then they do. And something else equally temporary replaces it.

The first day was the hardest for me. My eyes wanted to be active. They disliked being closed for so long when my mind was awake. I also really disliked not knowing how much longer I had to meditate. I gained a new appreciation for the kids at Hope House who were always asking, "Is my reading time over YET? How much longer?" We meditated for about ten hours every day: 4:30-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 1:00-5:00, and 6:00-7:00. Since we couldn't read, write, or exercise during the break time, it wasn't too hard to go back into meditation, because there was nothing else to do.

During the first few days, as much as I tried to focus on my breathing, I also took stock of the impressive array of thoughts that parade through my mind on a daily basis. None of it particularly shocked me, though I was surprised that I went through a couple days of nearly exclusive imagined interactions with fictional characters from TV and books before I started reliving memories. And always there were the show tunes. No matter how many different kinds of music I may listen to, Broadway seems to be the music of choice for my subconscious mind.

It took me until the eighth day to have the epiphany that none of this mattered. I didn't have to be aware of what was passing through my head, much less resolve or extract insight from it. All that mattered was my observation with my body and what it was feeling. It was like realizing I don't have to solve all any of the math problems in the textbook. I just have to look at the pictures very intently.

Day nine was the wonkiest, because that was the day we started scanning inside our bodies. I hit a whole bunch of spots where my body had stored its reactions to painful memories. It didn't hurt, it was just really uncomfortable. I hit one point in my stomach, like a knee-jerk reaction, started weeping. I didn't feel sad or angry, nor did I recall any specific memory. It was downright bizarre. And then, like all feelings, it passed. I didn't feel the spot again. And sure enough, when the course was over, I didn't feel such a strong physical reaction to various memories as they came up.

I was skeptical about Goenka's insistence on the universality of the Vipassana practice, mostly because I'm skeptical of any claim of a universal solution to suffering. Like all universal truths, suffering is understood, is explained, only in the cultural and the specific context. I found many aspects of his evening discourses problematic. But I accept his premise that Vipassana meditation can be useful even for those who are not followers of any of the Buddhist traditions. I especially love the bottom line: it's about the practice, not the belief. Christianity can get so caught up in orthodoxy, right belief, as opposed to orthopraxy, right practice. Both have their place. Yet, as Goenka taught in his discourses, there are levels at which one can have wisdom. There is th e level of being taught, like reading a menu and thinking, this looks like it could taste good. Then there's the observation level, which is looking at other people who are eating the food and seeing that they are enjoying the food. The only level that really counts is the experiential level, where you actually taste the food for yourself. Vipassana is about taking those precepts of not acting out in anger or pain, which I've always had in mind, and trying to let them permeate to a deeper, physical level.

As Goenka pointed out, it's so easy to believe the importance of things like "Be angry, but do not sin," or "Do not look on your neighbor with hatred," but it's so hard to find an exercise that allows you to cultivate these Christian precepts so that you can implement them in your daily life. Modern Christianity, which as I have said before is too frequently estranged from its contemplative traditions, is often unhelpful in providing these exercises. This is where Vipassana can help.